Postpartum Traditions Around The World: How Does The U.S. Measure Up?

by Sara Farrell Baker
Originally Published: 
Two women helping a new mom in India during her postpartum period.
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Three days after my C-section, my mind was racing. It was time for my husband and me to head home from the hospital with our baby boy and settle into life as a new family of three. As much as I missed my own bed and wanted to take a shower with water pressure stronger than postnasal drip, I was a terrified first-time mother and felt no rush to leave a building full of trained professionals.

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Seriously. Checkout was at 6 o’clock that evening and you can bet your ass I was wheeled out of my room not a moment sooner.

The postpartum recovery period in the United States can feel like a trial by fire. And I’m one of the fortunate ones. Many women would spit out their coffee at the mention of any period of recovery. As one of two developed countries on the planet *waves hello at Papua New Guinea* without paid maternity leave, it’s common for American women to return to work just days after giving birth.

Postpartum traditions across the world can vary drastically depending on where on the globe you land. Some traditions may seem archaic and repressive while others make me want to dust off the old passport. But in most countries, the focus on recovery for the mother, bonding between mother and child, and community involvement appears to be the norm.

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China, for example, has a monthlong resting period for new mothers known as zuo yuezi. For this month, women are heavily restricted in what they can eat, drink, and do. Raw fruits and vegetables are not allowed, and neither is cold water. They are fed soups and broths meant to aid in lactation and are not permitted to bathe for this month either.

All this along with pajamas, warm socks, and rest are supposed to help restore the mother’s yin and yang and to strengthen the newborn baby. And while typically women spend their month with family, it is becoming more trendy to stay in a luxury facility with a price tag of around $500 per day.

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In France, moms don’t experience the leaving-the-maternity-ward freakout for five whole days. Once they are home, nurses make routine house calls to administer medications and draw blood for any necessary testing. Women also receive prescriptions for la rééducation périnéale, a physical therapy that retrains pelvic floor muscles. French women have it made. Cheese, croissants, wine, and dry pants. Oh, and universal healthcare.

India has a long tradition of postpartum confinement. That phrase sounds awful, but hear me out. For 40–60 days, mother and baby are confined to the home to prevent exposure to infectious diseases. During this period, the mother is fed a nourishing diet of easily digestible foods meant to keep the body warm. Soap is not used during baths and is instead replaced with herbal infusions. Then — this is where they hook me — mothers are given a daily massage with special oil blends to aid in the recovery and strengthening of the postpartum body.

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Nigeria has a symbolic bathing tradition that may seem geared toward the baby but is actually for the mother. A grandmother traditionally gives the baby his or her first bath. This is to show the mother that she is not alone and that she has a community of women ready and willing to support her.

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When a woman becomes pregnant in Germany, she is given a small booklet at her first prenatal appointment. This booklet is called a mutterpass, and it comes with her to all of her prenatal and postnatal doctor visits. It is meant to make sure doctors are aware of any potential health risks and tracks her medical condition throughout.

In many Latin American countries, la cuarentena is observed. This is another confinement period, this time lasting six weeks. New mothers abstain from sex, avoid certain foods, and do not engage in strenuous activity. The point of la cuarentena is for the mother to have time and energy to devote to breastfeeding and taking care of her new baby. During these six weeks, other family members will pitch in to help take care of other children, cook meals, and keep up with household chores.

Finland has one postpartum tradition that is probably the most talked about in recent years. Every new baby in Finland goes home with a baby box. The box has a small mattress and can be used as a bed for the baby when the mattress is placed flat inside. Along with the mattress, the baby boxes are full of necessities like clothing, a snowsuit with hat and mittens, diapers, a picture book, teether, and baby toiletries. States like New Jersey and Alabama have adopted the baby box tradition since the practice has been so effective in lowering infant mortality rates for the Finnish.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered, the United States has a lot to learn from our neighbors around the world. I’m not exactly hankering for quarantine, but the level of support and care and easily accessible resources in other regions make it hard to swallow that we simply don’t measure up when it comes to supporting postpartum mothers and their recovery.

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